It's good to have a plan. Ray Rome and wife Susan have one when he retires in August. They're going to make sauerkraut.
Actually, they've been doing it for years. It's part of Ray's German heritage. The Rome family already has a business, Hoganville Family Farms, that sells the product. When he retires, however, Rome plans to double the production.
The recipe, cabbage, salt and water — no vinegar, and that's an important difference in the Hoganville brand, he maintains — was handed down through the family. Turning those three ingredients into kraut, sold in a shelf-stable jar, however, requires fermenting. Rome also learned that from his family.
He jokes that the first thing he ever helped his dad ferment was home brew. But sauerkraut was always an important family activity.
He made his first batch about 1984, he recalled, taking what he learned from his dad and doing his own experimenting. For several years, when he was living in Hays, he and his brother and some friends got together to make kraut. Imagine a little weekend get-together, where everybody takes home a few jars. Wrong! They shredded and fermented as much as 3,500 pounds of cabbage at a time.
If you put cabbage, salt and water together and leave it, it will ferment, Rome said. But the devil's in the details. Temperature must be controlled and the acidity level must be monitored during a two-week time before the kraut is canned.
If the pH (a measure of acidity) gets out of hand, you have to throw the whole batch away. It happens, but not often, Rome said.
He could add vinegar, and get the process done in a hurry, but he believes that makes the kraut bitter. He could add preservatives, but he wants an all-natural product.
As much as he likes sauerkraut, his hobby always produced enough to give away. Customers at his auto parts business in northwest Kansas who liked kraut — and you either do or you don't, the Romes agree — would get jars as gifts. Even after he moved to Pratt to work for Baker Petrolite as an oilfield truck driver, he handed out jars to customers. They're not his customers, but people he works with, and a gift is a nice gesture.
In 2010, the Romes' four children decided it was time for Dad to quit giving the stuff away and the family should go into business. The main push behind the effort was a son who lives in Florida. Jeff Rome was visiting with a fellow pilot and shared some of the family recipe.
"You should market this stuff," Rome said the man told his son. "That was easy for him to say; he's the grandson of Hillshire Farms."
Page 2 of 2 - In any case, the family began researching requirements for selling the product commercially, and found a certified kitchen they could lease for one month of the year in the Kansas City area. The fermentation and canning processes are approved through Kansas State University.
They have a semi-load of cabbage shipped to Baldwin City in late September and the whole family gathers to make kraut. Last year, they made 15,000 pounds, under the watchful eye of a state inspector.
This fall, after the senior Romes move to the Olathe area, they plan to double the production. They bought a shredder, capable of cutting 5,000 pounds an hour, to speed things up. Paul Goertz, of R & R Industries in Pratt, converted the assembly-line model to a rack on wheels that dumps the cabbage into bins, where fermentation takes place. They'll double the number of bins to 20, each measuring 50 by 47 inches and 39 inches high.
They sell sauerkraut at fairs and festivals around Kansas City, and in meat shops and other retail businesses. Most are small, like Bee Well Herbs in Pratt, but they've also placed it in three or four Hy-Vee stores and a Whole Foods store in Omaha, Neb.
Sauerkraut is a frequent menu item in the Rome house. They like it with pork roast, chops or ribs — put it on top a couple of hours before the meat is done, Susan recommended.
It is sold in 32-ounce and half-gallon jars, but they may add a smaller jar to the line, for people who like kraut but not that much. After opening, Rome said a jar will keep six to eight weeks in the refrigerator.
The sauerkraut recipe is a family relic, and the company name also comes from the family. Rome's ancestors settled in a German community called Hoganville in Graham County. The town later became part of St. Peter, another tiny town near Hoxie. Although there is no Hoganville on the Kansas map, the family still says you have to go there to get to heaven — but they don't judge you there.
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